In Valdeluz, a town outside Madrid that was envisioned as a commuter's paradise when it was created 15 years ago, there was always supposed to be a school. And a private one, for kindergartners to high schoolers, opened in September 2007 — just a year before the global financial crisis burst Spain's property bubble.
Soon enough, Valdeluz turned into one of Spain's infamous "cuidades fantasma," or ghost towns, filled with unwanted property and unfinished construction. Homeowners defaulted on mortgages, real estate promoters went bankrupt, and houses were repossessed. The school, half-built and meant to accommodate 1,500 students, shut down in 2013, making Valdeluz the largest municipality in Spain without an academic center.
Valdeluz is rebounding from a lost decade, alongside a national economy that emerged from recession in late 2013. But the town's recovery is occurring at a pace and on a scale that have little to do with the pipe dreams that fueled the project's launch before the financial crisis, when Valdeluz was billed as the first town built from scratch in Spain. Developers expected upscale buyers to arrive en masse; today, Valdeluz is happy to see renters with families, engaged and eager to form a fresh community.
Two years ago, the school reopened as a smaller, public institution.
Enrollment has grown quickly, to 303 in primary grades. But instead of a secondary school, there is an abandoned construction site next door. Frustrated parents, who have to transport their older children to schools in towns miles away, have hoisted a large banner on the unfinished walls: "When is the school coming?"
"A town without a school is a place without life," said Santiago Nova Grafión, the school's director. "We're now in a better economic situation and getting more and more pupils. But this has little to do with the completely unrealistic ambitions that some people here once had."
Valdeluz now covers just one-quarter of the land planned in 2004, when construction started. In that more compact space, apartments are selling and rents are climbing. Some tenants have even started to move to neighbouring villages because Valdeluz is becoming too pricey.
Inevitably, the swings of Spain's economy have meant that one buyer's misery became another's opportunity. At the peak of the housing crisis, some younger buyers moved in, lured by the affordability of a brand-new home they could buy from banks that had repossessed more than half the apartments in Valdeluz.
Javier Guzmán Jiménez, the president of the local branch of the conservative Popular Party, bought his home in 2010. He recalled that he was the last person to buy a house from Reyal Urbis, the real estate company that started the Valdeluz project and eventually filed for bankruptcy. Reyal Urbis was liquidated in 2017, having amassed a debt of more than €3.5 billion ($5.8b).
In 2010, Guzmán Jiménez paid €270,000 for his home, in a block where residents share a swimming pool, a playground and a paddle tennis court, a popular sport in Spain. His next-door neighbour waited one more year and got a better deal: €200,000. A neighbour who bought early, before Spain's construction bubble burst, paid €470,000 for an identical house.
"At first, living here felt pretty sad, sometimes even a bit frightening," said Guzmán Jiménez, now 50, as he recalled the empty streets of Valdeluz during the crisis. "We felt a bit like the first settlers, knowing that we just had to stick it out and pray for better times."
Valdeluz is about 40 miles by car from Madrid, next to the much larger town of Guadalajara. What persuaded promoters to build it was the development of Spain's high-speed train network and the government's decision to put a station here on the route linking Madrid and Barcelona. The station opened in 2003, in an empty patch of farmland.
The train station is decorated with black-and-white photographs of historic bridges and stations that were the backbone of Spain's early railway system. The station feels as if it, too, belonged to a bygone era.
The only security guard working on a weekday morning said the ticket office had closed about 18 months ago, after its employee retired. A handful of cars were parked in a lot designed for dozens of commuters.
"Valdeluz exists because of the promise that it would take 18 minutes to travel from here to Atocha," one of Madrid's main train stations, said Alicia Avila Milan, a politician from the center-right Ciudadanos party. "We got the tracks, but we never got all the trains that were meant to stop here."
Valdeluz is now a curious mix of the shiny and the derelict. At one end of the main street, a ramp leads into an abandoned building site covered with graffiti. That was meant to be the town's main supermarket until the retailer went bankrupt during the crisis. A nearby apartment building has a shimmering outdoor pool and looks to be in prime condition — except an open field remains where a wing was planned. The town's only church is nearly finished, but still surrounded by a wire fence.
A few residents remember when squatters took over some of empty property during the crisis, dashing any hope of a modern but quiet life in Madrid's countryside.
"When the house prices collapsed, we got some very undesirable people coming here, but they've thankfully now gone," said Bárbara Marquís, a dentist who moved to Valdeluz from Madrid in 2009 and opened a clinic in 2013. "It's been about having patience."
Valdeluz may never grow as once planned, but it has a young and growing population that contrasts with the rest of Spain's heartland, which is aging. More businesses are opening, and some infrastructure is being improved.
During a visit two months ago, subcontractors for Orange, a telecommunications operator, were laying the town's first fiber-optic cable. A few meters away, Adrian Romanillos, a chef and an entrepreneur, was supervising the painting and interior renovations of his new tapas bar.
Romanillos said he had checked some basic demographics before taking a risk on Valdeluz: The average age is 32, and about 800 children under 16 live in the area. The young could pressure their parents to take them out for tapas, he figured.
"I have here the right combination of strong demand and very limited competition," he said.
The road that leads to Valdeluz's golf club is lined with oaks, some over 500 years old. The privately owned club opened in 2007 and survived the crisis, finding profitability last year. Now it is about to start a new development phase, adding a hotel, a horse-riding center and dozens of houses on the edge of the golf course.
"The truth is that almost all the golf courses of Spain were built not just for golf but with one common goal: to build and sell nice houses around them, with views onto the greens," said Borja Ochoa, the club's sports director. "We're finally out of a crisis that forced everybody to shelve their projects. Everybody can now go back to their original plans."
As Valdeluz continues to recover, some residents are worried about a round of frenzied building activity. Many apartments face empty lots, now covered with poppies. Having bulldozers and construction cranes rumble through does not appeal to everybody.
"If this place doesn't grow any further, that is just fine by me," said Vanessa Garrido Nuero, who rents an apartment with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. "We moved here not to be in a crowded and noisy place but because we planned on having children and wanted them to grow up in a secure, green and quiet place."
Written by: Raphael Minder and Alexander Ingram
Photographs by: Alexander Ingram
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES